She would never understand the god-awful red carpet. The only other place she’d seen carpet like this was in the Funeral Home when her great-grandmother died. Not just the crimson color, but the spongy texture that sunk down with each step. Along with the red stained glass windows and red pew cushions, Kathleen felt like she was inside of a giant human lung. She held her breath waiting for it to collapse.
The singing was over this morning and she sat counting the lightbulbs of the gaudy chandeliers. There were always 24, but this week if the center chandelier fell it would land on Mrs. and Mr. Letonek. Kathleen envisioned herself hurling the couple out of the way just before the chandelier crushed their fragile bodies. This would ensure that Mrs. Letonek would still have a purse full of peppermint candies next Sunday. The Letoneks were sitting in Aunt Bonnie’s usual spot but Aunt Bonnie never had candy and wasn’t her real Aunt anyway, so the chandelier usually landed on her leg or one of her fat arms. Kathleen would try to push her to safety but the weight of her round waist made it impossible and while Kathleen didn’t want blood on her hands, even in her imagination, she knew she couldn’t realistically save Aunt Bonnie entirely.
Kathleen uncrossed her legs and the pew gave a small squeak. She froze, her eyes bouncing to the left waiting to catch her mother’s Medusa stare. A few strands of hair around her mother’s ear was the only movement she detected. She turned her eyes back to Reverend Davis who stood gripping both sides of the wooden pulpit. “The blood of Christ,” he was saying “cleanseth the evil of our hearts and taketh away all evil desires.” Amens were murmured on cue.
For the one hundredth time that day Kathleen looked down at the small diamond ring on her left hand. Joe’s proposal hadn’t been a surprise, but she’d never dreamed he’d buy a ring. Last night they had stood next to his beat up truck in the high school parking lot, she still wearing her white dress and graduation robe, him in his suit and tie. He bent down on one knee and she had to try not to laugh when he winced from the gravel. In his thick rural Pennsylvania accent, he whispered that as they started their adult life, he wanted them to start it together. She knew she loved Joe, but in this moment of deciding to become his wife she felt a mix of
joy, liberation, panic and nausea. Her parents adored Joe. Joe’s dad and her own had been on the same softball team before her mother made her father give it up. And once Joe had been baptised in their church he won over her mother with his polite and quiet steadiness. Joe wasn’t the problem. Their combined 35 years of age wasn’t the problem. The problem was a simple gold band with a small clear diamond.
As Joe drove her home to the white farm house, she turned to him suddenly and said, “Listen, I’m already wearing white, and it’s only 5 O’clock. Let’s just go see the Presbyterian Pastor and get this thing over with.” Joe had laughed. “You know your mum would kill you.” “She’s going to kill me anyway over this stupid ring, so I might as well die a married woman.” Joe laughed again. “Let’s give your folks a chance. They’ll come round.” As she said goodbye to him from the driveway, he had promised to help smooth things over at church the next morning
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. Still she had stood on the grass in front of the porch, worrying her lip, until finally, she
slipped the ring off her finger and tucked it into the pocket of her sweater before climbing the steps to her front door.
Kathleen felt a tug on her dress and looked down to see her mother’s bony fingers straightening the hem over her knees. Her mother’s gaze never left the preacher’s face as her right hand did the Lord’s bidding. Kathleen turned her eyes back to the pulpit, hoping her mother would leave her be. She had loved this dress last summer. It was a hand-me-down from an older cousin who quickly grew out of it leaving it barely worn. The first time Kathleen had put it on, her sister and mother had raved while she did a twirl for them in the kitchen. Blue and white gingham checks with a large white collar, no sleeves, and a hem that hit well above the knee made her feel like a true 1960s woman. For the month of June she had worn the dress to family picnics, her father’s softball games, and Friday night dinner dates with Joe. She almost took it to summer camp with her, but her mother convinced her of the dangers of grass stain and bonfire smoke. So, she had lovingly hung it in her closet as she packed for her last summer camp before her senior year of high school.
This dress was to be her gateway to womanhood but now here she sat, white cotton sleeves sewn on, ruffles added to the hem, and an extra button at the base of her neck. She felt like a blue gingham nun. The shock from her first seeing the alterations to the beloved dress washed over her again. Joe had dropped her off in front of the familiar farmhouse with her knapsack full of dirty camp clothes and her pillow tucked under one arm. Glad to be home she’d run inside only to find a mother whose short hair had been bobby pinned into a bun at the base of her neck, a father wearing a button up shirt on a Saturday, a younger brother who’d been pulled from the wrestling team, and worst of all, a jeans-loving sister wearing a long skirt, a braid, and pantyhose. Kathleen’s room had been ransacked. Every pair of pants or shorts thrown out. The hems taken out of every dress and several awful long skirts added to her wardrobe. Not even her underwear drawer was safe, seven pairs of nude colored pantyhose sat folded in a neat pile next to her bras.
She had taken the blue gingham atrocity from the closet and sat heavily on the bed. “Listen, Kathy,” came her mother’s voice form the doorway. “What’s done is done.” Her mother explained the family’s recent salvation, baptism, sanctification. Kathleen had stared as these unfamiliar words circled around her. “Likewise,”her mother quoted from 1 Timothy “the women are to dress in suitable apparel with modesty and self-control. Their adornment must not be with gold or pearls or expensive clothing” Kathleen had listened remembering that only a few months before she had focused the family’s new camera on this same woman wearing high-waisted short shorts and a polka dot midriff baring top, smoking a cigarette and leaning against a beautiful Ford Mustang at the county car show. This woman who swore, fought fiercely with her father, and cheated at card games.
“She still cheats at card games.” Kathleen thought glancing at her mother who was nodding her head at whatever Reverend Davis had just said. This morning her mother wore a navy blue skirt that reached almost to her ankles. a white blouse with a high collar and a pale yellow
cardigan with the sleeves pushed up just below her elbows. Somehow, despite the hot June sun, her mother had willed her body not to sweat. Her hair as always was in a tight bun. The other women in the church used bobby pins and hair spray to create waves and volume. Anything that could make a bun more interesting without crossing the line into vanity. Even Mrs. Davis, the preacher’s wife styled her hair with a large poof at her forehead that gave her a good three inches of height. Just past her mother’s profile Kathleen could see her father’s large red nose and thinning hair line. His face gleamed and he used his blue handkerchief to wipe his forehead.
That large forehead and soft blue eyes gave away every emotion. Last night as Kathleen had entered the kitchen her father had been sitting at the kitchen table, his Bible open, wrinkles of concern waving across that forehead. Her mother cleaning as she cooked gave a sharp hello and asked her to set the table. Kathleen timidly took down a stack of plates and as calmly as possible shared her good news without mentioning the diamond ring tucked in her pocket. Her father had let out a whistle and said “Is that right?.” Kathleen knew he was only pretending to be surprised as he wrapped her in a sweaty hug. Her mother slowly took Kathleen’s face in her hands and kissed her on the cheek. “He’ll be a godly husband.” She’d said. Kathleen had basked in this moment of joy knowing the atmosphere of the small kitchen would darken in a moment. She took the ring out and said softly, “I think I’m going to wear this.” She’d had no time to prepare a speech and her words faded out leaving nothing but the sound of summer frogs through the open window. Her father with raised eyebrows had looked quickly at her mother. Kathleen cringed waiting for the explosion of her mother’s raised voice. Waiting for her mother to blame her father who would be left in tears, worried for the salvation of his oldest daughter.
Instead her mother said softly, “Well, you know how we feel about earthly adornment. But you’re old enough to decide and no one else can walk the narrow path for you. It’s between you and God now.”
Kathleen’s memory faded as a soft hymn began to play from the piano. Preacher Davis was calling for those who felt convicted to come forward and kneel at the altar. His voice trembled as he pleaded for the lost sinners. Kathleen felt her mother’s eyes on her and her cheeks went hot. For a moment she felt her back stiffen and meld with the wooden pew, determined to stay in her seat. Her father leaned forward and gave her a reassuring smile. Those blue eyes loving but holding the weight of worry for a lost daughter. As Kathleen stared at her father she felt her body move. She rose and with halting steps made her way down the red carpeted aisle of the small sanctuary.
Kathleen knelt to the ground in front of the alter; her knees resting on the wooden step and grasped the railing that separated herself from the stage. Eyes closed, she held her breath ready for the oppressive weight of guilt. For God’s voice to thunder. For her mother’s bony fingers to pry the gold band from her hand. In the swirl of darkness at the backs of her eyelids
Kathleen began to see a face.Her mother’s sharp featured, but faintly smiling face. “It’s between you and God.” The face said. Kathleen’s shoulders relaxed.
A shadow fell across her closed eyes and she felt the weight of two cold hands on her shoulders. Mrs. Davis, the pastor’s wife, whispered in her soft girlish way, “Kathy, until you take that ring off of your finger, God will never hear your prayers.” Kathleen’s body jerked and her eyes flew open. The smell of hairspray and baby powder wafting in swirl around her. Kathleen looked at this woman wearing a pink and white dress, red hair piled high on her head and a gold watch on her wrist. “Watches tell us the time” her mother had said last year, “they serve a purpose.”
Suddenly unable to focus, Kathleen stood. On both sides of her other sinners were kneeling. An elder of the church had laid his hands on her parents heads and were praying, no doubt, for her own salvation. She turned and looked for Joe. Aunt Bonnie whose eyes were supposed to be closed sat head bowed, staring toward the front. Mr. and Mrs. Letonek were nodding and Amening while giving off the slightest sound of crinkling candy wrappers.
Right then she remembered her white graduation dress hanging in her closet at home.
Heather was a participant in Paul Malone’s Creative Writing on the Go Creative Writing Workshop in November.